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Opinion: Huntsman's Failure Shows GOP's Extremism Problem

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Republican Jon Huntsman speaks during a press conference to announce his bid for the presidency at Liberty State Park June 21, 2011 in Jersey City, New Jersey.

It’s only a matter of time before it’s Rick Santorum’s turn.

Why not? Why shouldn’t Rick get his moment at the head of the GOP pack? The merry-go-round of candidates who have shared the top spot alongside Mitt Romney has now stopped on Newt Gingrich, but can’t last for long. If his moral foibles, Fanny/Freddie lobbying and unpopular history don’t sink him, the all-too-reasonable position on immigration he voiced in last week’s debate will. Which means he’ll follow Bachmann, Perry and Cain into the dustbin of discarded demagogues.

The GOP's right wing will look for a new savior, and since nobody else is lining up to jump in the race, give Santorum a second look. Just don’t give him a look on Google given how his name has been turned against him.

Aside from being a loser – he did fall to a Democrat and seemingly into irrelevance mere years ago – he strikes the right profile: He talks family and morals and values voters and is unapologetic about socially conservative stances far to the right of the mainstream.

With six weeks until the Iowa Caucus, there’s still time for Santorum’s turn.

In addition to genuinely conservative credentials, it’s also a process of elimination, and there’s no way Ron Paul or John Huntsman will rise to the Anybody But Romney pedestal. The fact that neither the consistently libertarian Congressman or moderate former Governor is considered viable in this primary is the biggest indication of the problem plaguing the Republican Party - a problem that should concern Americans of all political stripes.

Ron Paul has been on this journey before. In 2008, his money bombs showed passionate support, and supposedly The Tea Party embraced his principles as they emerged as a force (and helped elect his son to the Senate).

However, the Tea Party isn’t truly comfortable with his brand of libertarianism. They boo him over foreign policy – whether his calls to bring the troops home or to let Israel fend for itself. And his uncompromising message about social services is too far afield for more practical-minded conservatives who keep their plans to end Medicare and Social Security quiet.

If Ron Paul, after a relatively high-profile bid in 2008, couldn’t get traction with the Tea Party this time around, then he never will.

Huntsman is a different case. When progressives watch GOP debates, they wonder who that likable, reasonable fellow is and what he’s doing on that stage. His 1 percent poll number means a lot Republicans wonder that as well. His appeal to moderates is exactly why he’s floundering. From the moment he tweeted his support of scientists on climate change and evolution, he doomed his candidacy.

So why does he stay in? Maybe he’s betting that the GOP will implode this election and realize it needs to escape from the grip of the right-wing extremists. And if a newly-empowered moderate faction rises, he’ll be the obvious choice to be its leader. It’s a bet not for 2012, but for positioning for 2016 or 2020, and a gamble that the GOP party makes room for moderates again.

America would be better served by a second major party that had room for scientists, immigrants and atheists somewhere in its ranks. Our country would be served by a collaborator in governing that seeks solutions and is willing to compromise, qualities the president embodies but has not found in his dance partners. Governor Huntsman looks like that type of figure – if he can ever find his way to the top of the GOP heap.

And if he can’t – he’ll become a Democrat, as so many other moderate Republicans have during the Bush Administration and rise of the Tea Party. All of which makes the Democrats a broader tent and all the more willing to compromise…which is dangerous if the other side never comes halfway.

We need Huntsman to remain a Republican and a Republican Party that wants John Huntsman.

In the meantime, we have a party that’s waiting to give Rick Santorum his 15 minutes of fame.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."